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Hiking and Video Games: What Tunic Taught Me About Getting Lost

At the beginning of the year, I was obsessed with a game called Tunic. Initially, it seemed like a typical Zelda-inspired game where you control a humanoid fox navigating through a world filled with ancient ruins and environment-based puzzles to solve. Then, I realized that Tunic offered much more than being a Zelda clone. This game became a significant source of solace for me during a challenging period and quickly made its way onto my list of top 5 favorite games. In my opinion, Tunic is close to being the perfect game. However, what confuses me is that my first time playing Tunic didn’t leave a good impression on me. When I first played it in 2022, I struggled and eventually gave up in frustration after a few hours. The game remained the same between both attempts, so what changed in me?

Not all wanderers are lost

Most of us are familiar with the concept of hiking, which involves following a trail through a scenic natural environment. This allows hikers to focus on things like enjoying the scenery, engaging in conversation, or challenging themselves physically. But what happens when there is no trail to follow? In such cases, hikers must rely on landmarks, maps, compasses, and other navigation tools to find their way. This fundamentally alters the hiking experience, placing more emphasis on the hiker’s ability to navigate using the available tools. 

Hiking on a marked trail and hiking off-trail offer distinct experiences, and neither is inherently superior to the other. The key to a good hike is to arrive with the right expectations. Suppose I expect to follow a trail but am instead given a compass and asked to navigate through the wilderness. In that case, I will inevitably get lost and have a disappointing experience because I just wanted to go on a walk and chat with friends.

Hiking on or off the trail

Many games are equivalent to hiking on a marked trail. Modern AAA titles like God of War: Ragnarök, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla fall into this category. These games provide clear objectives and direction for the player, offering a highly curated experience and focusing on aspects like mastering combat systems and platforming challenges to engage the player.

On the other hand, games like Tunic, or to cite a better-known example, Elden Ring, fall into the off-trail category, where the game provides subtle guidance and encourages players to figure things out on their own. This type of game presents landmarks and clues to assist the player without explicitly directing them. In Tunic, for example, players can discover pages of the game’s “physical” manual while exploring the stages. The manual, written almost entirely in an in-game language, provides information on combat, power upgrades, objectives, and world lore in a cryptic manner, requiring the player to piece together the information using the short portions of readable text and illustrations in what I imagine an archaeologist feels like when examining an ancient dig site.

Though I’ve focused on in-game navigation in my hiking analogy, the broader distinction between on-trail and off-trail games lies in how they introduce and emphasize gameplay concepts. On-trail games thoroughly explain the gameplay elements before allowing the player to master them, while off-trail games provide hints and then let players figure things out on their own. Both approaches have their appeal, but they offer contrasting gameplay experiences.

A lack of guidance does not indicate a lack of care

Reflecting on my first and second experiences with Tunic, I had evolved in my understanding of what games can be. I discovered that a lack of obvious guidance in a game does not indicate a lack of care from the developer in ensuring the player’s enjoyment. I learned that it’s beneficial to approach games with trust in the developer and their vision. Of course, this trust can be reconsidered if the game fails to honor it.

For this shift in how I approach games, I must credit a YouTuber named Superdude and their video, “Knowledge Based Games, and Why You Should Play Them”, which introduced the concept of knowledge-based-unlocks in games. This is when the progression in a game hinges on understanding how to solve a problem rather than simply unlocking abilities through boss fights or level exploration. In the video, Superdude explained how this approach to game progression can provide a more satisfying experience and cited Tunic as an example. This concept made me reconsider my approach to playing games. 

If I get lost, nothing in nature cares

 To close on my hiking analogy, if I get lost, nothing in nature cares. There won’t be a deer that pops out to guide me to my destination. Great games can intentionally make players feel lost, which makes the ‘aha’ moment when things click into place all the more satisfying. Game developers do care about guiding players through the game. Behind every great game are developers who thoughtfully lay down a trail or landmarks to follow.

Reflecting on my experiences with Tunic, I now approach gaming with an open mind, understanding that not all games will cater to my expectations. Just as hiking on a marked trail and off-trail offer distinct experiences, on-trail and off-trail games provide contrasting gameplay experiences. As I continue to explore the diverse worlds found in games, I appreciate more and more the thoughtful craftsmanship behind every game and the different experiences they offer.

For more articles from Geekwave, make sure to check out Eric’s review of XDefiant, as well as Jason’s look back at A Quiet Place Part Two, and for everything else Geeky, stay here with Geekwave!

Photos by Austin Ban on Unsplash, “Knowledge Based Games, and Why You Should Play Them” by Superdude, Youtube,  and ShackNews.com

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